Friday, September 12, 2014

DVD(s) of the Week: Documentary Catch-Up

The feature-length documentary can be a bit of an unsung hero of cinema. There are some that hit big - last years Blackfish, which we've still not seen yet as a recent example - but certainly in the local cinemas near us they rarely get shown so they're a bit of a staple of our DVD rental list, just to keep up. And there are some great ones out there - not just the iconolastic, Micheal Moore-style polemics, but also the thoughtful, intelligent investigations or discussions about subjects that benefit from a decompressed running time and that little bit of extra prestige that the format seems to bring. We've caught up on a couple over the last few weeks, so it makes sense to review them together.

Tim's Vermeer
First up, Tim's Vermeer, produced and directed by Penn and Teller. This is basically exploring the long-running debate about Vermeer's painting, and whether he was using some sort of optical assistance like a Camera Obscura to help him create the light effects in his work. I've followed this debate causally for a while, as it seems to intersect with a lot of divisions in Art and Art criticism, especially from those who seem to think that if he did use these sorts of aid, that would somehow invalidate his genius or artistic merit in some way. Which is nonesense, if you ask me, but there you have it.

The film follows Tim Jenison as he attempts to recreate Vermeers (alledged) painting techniques, and re-create The Music Lesson using them. It's a gentle, engaging movie that talks a lot about Vermeer, and the questions around his art, as well as the trial and error to duplicate it.  And you know what? I'm sold on the idea, frankly - I've love Vermeer, and I've been lucky enough to see a couple in the flesh and they're incredible. Ultimately it doesn't matter how he did it, because they'd still be incredible. But on balance if Vermeer not only had that understanding of composition and colour, but also the technical know-how to build something that helped him achieve that on canvas, then my estimation of him can only go up.

20 Feet from Stardom
Its strange to think it, but the sound of Rock and Roll is shaped, in no small part, by the voices of its backing singers. 20 Feet from Stardom is their story, the story of these women whose voices you will have heard thousands of times, but whose names you'll never have heard, and it's a poignant one, too. Talking to a range of women (and a few men) back from the sixties right up to the present, with contributions for a good selection of artists who've used them through the years.

It's a bittersweet story; these singers clearly love their jobs and are hugely proud of their work, but at the same time many of them tried for their moments at the front of the stage and still carry those scars. It's also a strong subtext - outright spoken late in the running time - that these were black women that industry used to prop up the singing voices of "more commercial" white artists, and they carry the scars and resentments from that too. But despite this, the film still sounds and feels joyous, a celebration of talent often unrewarded, and in the modern digital age, an art in danger of being lost.